The best NBA teams never quite end the way they should. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers fractured prematurely after a shocking Finals loss and mutual contempt amongst their biggest stars. The six-peat Bulls burnt out, with Scottie, Mike and Phil all heading in different directions amid a lockout. LeBron’s Heat made four straight Finals before he went home, leaving a team that was much more shooting star than dynasty. And now, the Spurs are the latest band to be fully broken up, as Manu Ginobili has announced his retirement after 16 seasons in the NBA.
Gregg Popovich is the most visible remaining vestige from one of the most successful stretches for a franchise in American sports history. Tim Duncan exited in 2016. This summer, Tony Parker signed a two-year contract to be Kemba Walker’s backup in Charlotte. And now Ginobili, one of the most accomplished individuals in the history of basketball, will walk away for good.
Four years after Duncan, Parker and Ginobili seemingly mastered the sport in a thorough championship drubbing of one of the game’s greatest players, San Antonio is headed for its most uncertain future since Popovich became coach in 1996. The same franchise that has made the playoffs every year since 1998 will be fighting more for relevance than a title.
This summer was always going to signal something of a new era for the Spurs. Once Kawhi Leonard wanted out, it was clear the team was rapidly heading for a new direction. The acquisition of DeMar DeRozan was made with the idea of keeping the team competitive, as Popovich himself likely wants a fighting chance as his career winds down. Still, there would have been some comfort, even with Parker gone, to see Ginobili coming off the bench in what would have been his 17th season.
Manu was the first of his kind. Whereas Duncan was The Big Fundamental, Ginobili was The Big Risk. His wild forays into the paint could turn into art or a hair-pulling turnover at any moment. In the postseason, Ginobili was a clutch performer who experienced life-changing highs and devastating lows. The foul on Dirk in the 2006 West Semis. Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Redemption in the 2014 Finals. The 2004 Olympic semifinal against the U.S. Ginobili’s career is littered with moments that will be ingrained in basketball lore, from his imitation-spawning eurostep to his bat-catching abilities. Manu was a gamer, and for every play that made you scream at your television, he made 20 more that made you throw your arms up in disbelief.
That’s all gone now. And the Spurs are left with Popovich, who—even as one of the greatest coaches across all sports—can only do so much with a decent roster in the same conference as some juggernauts. It’s hard to say the Spurs of a few years ago deserved a better end than this. 2014 would have been too soon to for everyone to ride off into the nearest wine tasting. Duncan at least left on his own terms, when he was still a capable player. Parker has earned the right to play for as long as he wants. And Ginobili was an underdog until the very end, called into a bigger role when Leonard decided not to play.
There’s ultimately a certain lack of ceremony to how the Spurs will transition to this new phase for the franchise. The Leonard situation derailed peaceful plans of a passing of the torch. Parker’s game hasn’t aged as gracefully as Ginobili’s. And Ginobili, though he would seemingly be the most likely candidate, can’t play forever.
Popovich will likely be the next to go, though hopefully not any time soon. That man can and should retire any day he damn well pleases, but it’s still enjoyable watching what he has to offer to the game. More than anyone else, Popovich will probably miss looking down the bench and looking at Ginobili, calling on him to check in. Nobody knew for sure earlier this year, when the Spurs were bounced in the playoffs that Ginobili would be playing in the final game of his NBA career. Just like on one of his frenetic drives into a thicket of defenders, Manu kept us on the edge of our seats until the last second.